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Drinking Wine

Requiem for a Wine Region

foiegras.jpgMy first real experience with wine was in Strasbourg in 1974. Before that wine had only been Mateus or Lancer’s and there was that one night during my first week of college when Boone’s Farm left me driving the porcelain bus, but when I arrived in France there was something that made me want to try wine. Wine was not hard to find in Strasbourg and the pitchers of Edelzwicker I gulped in the WienStube of Alsace started me down the wine road that I still follow over thirty years later.

Needless to say, Alsatian wine holds a place dear to my heart. Yet there was even more, when I entered the wine business in 1979 everyone that knew what-was-what about wine loved and drank the hard, mineraly, acid driven wines of Alsace. Times being very different than the dog-eat-dog world of wine sales today, the small group of wine professionals that were really into wine would gather at group picnics and parties, even though we were competitors, and share bottles we loved. When it came to dry white wines those bottles were invariably Burgundy and Alsace.

Today things have changed in both the wine business and Alsace. This weekend, while perusing the list of a very good Indian restaurant with a nice wine list, I sadly passed over the Alsatian wines.  No great wine region has been more deformed and disfigured by modern winemaking fads than Alsace and it is with great sadness that I actually recommend not buying these wines, which have lost their individual character and their reason for being because everything they are trying to do someone else does better.

Today’s Alsatian wines are great examples of the more-is-better school of winemaking that chases points instead of grace at the table. They are “Too” wines: too ripe, too extracted, too botrytized, too sweet, too alcoholic, too flabby and too boring to drink.  The Alsatians make the foie gras of white wines. Just like real foie gras is made by force feeding the bird, Alsatians are force feeding their grapes with the end result being their wines only taste good with foie gras - a somewhat limited use.

Perhaps if we avoid these distended wines a new generation of Alsatian winemakers will return to their roots and make some of the world’s greatest white wines. I hope so because I miss them. 

Tepid Enthusiasm

The restaurant was stunningly elegant - they must have spent millions. Everything in its place and everyoneicebucket.jpg perfectly trained - working like a fine watch as they glided through the dinning room. As much attention was paid to the wine list as the food and the list was full of tempting bottles, beautifully displayed on arching racks behind the bar. The tables gleamed with exactly the right Riedel stemware for the wine selected.

It was a beautiful warm West Coast day, 85 degrees with no humidity, so the broad glass doors that formed the perimeter  of the dining room were thrown open to let the evening’s cool breezes slip gently through the room. It was that sublime type of warm that oozes comfort. After stretching the limits of my wife’s patience, I finally made a choice from the comprehensive wine list. With distinguished fanfare the bottle arrived at the table, the cork was removed and sniffed.  A small splash was poured into my gigantic Riedel and I took a sniff and a sip. Although it was not corked, it was not right. There is just something not enjoyable about a 14% alcohol wine served at the temperature of bath water.

Tepid red wine is not pleasurable to drink. 

Why is it that restaurants that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on custom display wine racks and hyper-expensive glassware can’t bother to serve their wines at the proper temperature? There are the bottles on dramatic wall racks or lined behind the bar, only to spend the night with the A/C turned off or warming up to the open-air temperature of a warm summer day. Red wines should be served at 68 degrees not 78 degrees.  

America is the country where we serve our white wines too cold and our red wines too warm. That old saw about serving red wines at room temperature was conceived by some old British Lord sitting in a damp old castle, not some gleaming restaurant in LA or Manhattan. 

Restaurants have made great strides in wine service. Wine lists have improved dramatically and great glassware is the norm, not the exception, in almost any good restaurant. Now they need to take those few last steps. I am tired of having to ask for an ice bucket for my red wine, which I have to do in almost every restaurant I visit from June to September. With the price most restaurants painfully extract from the consumer, the very least they could do is serve the wine at an enjoyable temperature.

Bad Vintage = Great Wine

Bad Vintage = Great Wine. Not the equation you usually think of, but it is often a reality. Well, it’s a reality in the hands of a great winemaker. What the best winemakers do when that bad year hits is do everything thing they can do in the vineyard, then brutally select out the best wines in the cellar and then declassify them to a humbler place name or label. The result is wines from great vineyards that usually sell at stratospheric prices are released at a fraction of the price. While they may indeed be a fraction of the wine these vineyards can produce in a good vintage, they still can offer exceptional value and let the consumer come in contact with some of the elements that can make such wines unforgettable at their best.

One such wine is the 2002 Giuseppe Quintarelli Primofiore.  Quintarelli’s Primofiore is always a delight,quintarelli-doppo--vinitaly.jpg but when vintages like 2002 curse the Veneto, wines that would normally be destined for his rightfully exalted Amarone end up in Primofiore and the results are stunning. Primofiore is a first pressing and includes all of the varietals Quintarelli grows including: Corvina Veronese, Corvinone, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc, which are partially dried before fermentation, then a touch of lees from the fresh Amarone (or in the case of 2002, probably Rosso del Bepi) adds depth, structure and body. While Primofiore is only a faint shadow of  the incomparable Quintarelli Amarone, it is a very lovely shadow indeed. The finish of this wine is a haunting reminder of the layered greatness of the Amarone - just at a much lower volume. However, with Quintarelli’s Amarone approaching $300 a bottle, if you are lucky enough to find some, Primofiore will only set you back $40.

 

I.G.T. - Indicazione Geografica Tipica

"IGT!"

"Gesundheit."

No that wasn’t a sneeze, it was I.G.T. or Indicazione Geografica Tipica: the new wine classification introduced indocgigt.gif 1992 as part of a general reorganization of the D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) Italian wine law. I.G.T. was to be a new controlled quality level just below the D.O.C. to create a home for wines that, for many reasons, did not met the D.O.C. requirements, but had regional character.

Predictably, the introduction of the I.G.T. has been a mere sneeze as far as consumers are concerned — and a great example of a bureaucratic shell game.

The creation of I.G.T. was made necessary by the inadequacies of the D.O.C. regulations and by the widespread revolt against them by many famous and politically powerful wine producers. These producers were being forced to give their top wines, often internationally styled ones that did not follow D.O.C. rules, the lowly Vino da Tavola (table wine) designation.

Vino da Tavola had been the catch-all category for everyday wines until the super-Tuscan revolution hit Chianti and Maremma. Famous wines like Le Pergole Torte, Tignanello, and Sassicaia, which did not meet D.O.C. requirements, had to compete internationally against the world’s finest wines with this common name on their labels. To further confuse the matter, the phrase "table wine" in the US is a legal designation set by the government to denote all wines of less than 14.5% alcohol.

The end result is that I.G.T. has basically replaced the Vino da Tavola category for exported wines and does not provide much more of a guarantee of quality than Vino da Tavola did. Aa-choo!

There are oceans of "Veneto I.G.T." wine arriving in the USA now so let’s look at those regulations. The wines can be white, red, or rose produced in lightly sparking or novella (new) style. There are 39 permitted grape varieties and the grapes can come from any of 7 provinces. Pretty demanding requirements, right? So now exceptional wines made by great Veneto producers like Anselmi and Inama still carry the same designation as bulk wines made at the cooperatives. Exactly the same situation as before.

To be fair the I.G.T. regulations are more stringent than those for Vino da Tavola and they do restrict the wine named to be at least of a defined region, while Vino da Tavolo could be produced from wines produced anywhere in Italy — and sometimes Italy seemed to mean the borders of the Roman Empire. However, the reality of the situation is that I.G.T. is a shallow marketing tool: a fancier name for almost the same thing.

I.G.T. wines are basically divided into three groups, all labeled the same: industrial grade, good solid country wines, and hyper-expensive superstars (sometimes they are only hyper-expensive). You can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Unfortunately, price is the first giveaway. When you see an I.G.T. wine at $50.00 you have a pretty good idea it is not in the industrial grade category. But sorry, no guarantees.

For anyone unfamiliar with the best estates the best reference point is still the importer or a passionate retailer. For instance, Neil Empson offers Monte Antico, a reliable value in I.G.T. Toscano. What makes this wine reliable is the Empson name on the bottle. This same is true also for a wine like Castel di Salve, Santi Medici, Salento I.G.T. imported by Vin Divino, another very reliable importer. There are many poor Salento I.G.T. and Toscano I.G.T. wines, but when selected by a dedicated importer you have a much better chance of finding a good wine, and a good value.

Italian wine law is bursting at the seams from its own rich diet. Italy is overwhelmed by excellent wines, but they just don’t fit well into the few categories and the constrictions of D.O.C.G., D.O.C. and I.G.T.

"IGT!"

"Gesundheit."

 

DOCG

Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. It sounds grand. It sounds like it should be wearing a sash withitalia_docg.jpg the colors of the Italian flag like the mayor did at our wedding. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita or D.O.C.G. was designed to be the ultimate level of wine law in Italy. In English it means that the place of origin is controlled and guaranteed for quality. In Italian it means another good idea sinks into bureaucratic hell.

I was contemplating this the other day on an AlItalia flight as I broke the D.O.C.G. strip stuck over the screw-cap on a 187 ml.  bottle of basic industrial Chianti that came with my dinner. So much for the glory and the sash.

It was just 1963 when the Italian government implemented the D.O.C. (Denominazioni di Origine Controllata) to protect and promote Italian wines — and to better compete with the French. Only 17 years later they were forced to introduce the D.O.C.G. concept because the D.O.C. laws had lost all of their credibility as thousands of poor wines sported the designation.

The D.O.C.G. was to change all of this by protecting the great names of Italian wine. So the government selected five of the most important, world famous vineyard areas of Italy to be crowned in 1987 with the D.O.C.G. title. Those five were: Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Albana di Romagna.

Whoa … wait a second. Albana di Romagna you’re asking, what’s that? For those who care, Albana di Romagna is an average quality white wine and there was no reason in the world to include it with this elite group. To select this wine as the first white D.O.C.G. destroyed the credibility of the new classification from the start. Bureaucrats 1; Consumers 0.

Italy is blessed and cursed by its own diversity. Nowhere is there a country that produces a broader range of high quality wine styles from such a confusing number of grape varieties. This diversity makes for interesting drinking but bad wine law. The Italians wanted to compete with the French system of Appellation Controleé (AOC), but the sheer numbers of wine growing regions, varietals, and growers make the establishment of a definitive law impossible.

To add to the confusion the wide variety of styles being produced makes D.O.C. and D.O.C.G. more a simple geographical address instead of any kind of indication of quality. For instance, having a D.O.C. Riccardo Cotarella (the superstar consulting winemaker) would be more a more accurate indicator of  style than the current geographical designations.

Take a D.O.C.G. like Barolo — clear cut, right? Exact laws, clearly defined vineyards, very specific wine making regulations, and only one allowed grape variety. What could the confusion be here? Just taste a Barolo by Elio Altare next to the Barolo produced by Giacomo Conterno and you will be mystified. They taste nothing alike. How can this happen with all those rules and the lofty D.O.C.G. designation protecting the name? It can happen because wine making is a complicated process offering the winemaker a myriad of choices that affect the final style of the wine — even in an environment with supposedly stringent regulation. In this glorious maze of wines the name of the producer is the only reliable indicator of quality.

Closing Time

Closing time“ Yeah the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it's partner found, it's partner lost
and it's hell to pay when the fiddler stops:
it's CLOSING TIME” Leonard Cohen

You pay the big bucks on the big wine with the big points, but it doesn't deliver. What’s up?

“It's closed” is the big excuse. You see it on the wine discussion forums all the time. Some whiney writer complains that the pointy Barolo they opened was disappointing because it was closed. This is either a big lie or a huge rationalization made by people that either:

  • don’t understand what they bought
  • read the Wine Spectator
  • actually don’t like the wine they bought (the nebbiolo curse)
  • have to rationalize that they dropped big bucks on something they just don’t like

The fact of the matter is that in over two decades of tasting I have never tasted a great wine that did not show its greatness every day of its life - and I mean every day. Exceptional character is something that cannot hide.

I don’t care how tight-assed that Giacosa (or Colla, Marcarini, Conterno, Mascarello etc.) Barolo was – there was never one day could you not taste its potential greatness. If you have a great wine that you are unimpressed with; you either don’t like it or don’t understand it – and that’s true from the time it’s ready to bottle. There is one exception to this and that is travel or other bottle abuse. Shipping wines across the Atlantic or the continental United States is like putting a wine through a blender and many wines need months of rest to recover – especially Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo.

There is no “hell to pay” from drinking wines that are too young or closed. Certainly there will be better times to drink them, but if a wine is great it will always be great each and every day of its life. “It’s closed” is a crutch used by too many wine drinkers who empty wallets on wines based on fashion instead of what they really like. It’s like buying a shirt that is the hottest thing in fashion that looks ridiculous on you, but justify it by thinking it will look better on you next year: an unlikely event.

There is never a truly great wine that is not always, from the beginning to the end of its voyage, enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. The more complex the wine, the more responsibility the drinker has to participate in that greatness and to appreciate the individual character and development of that wine at that moment.

Enjoying greatness in wine is an interactive, not passive experience.


Drinking the Best at Their Worst

Wine cellarNever have the great wines of the world been more clearly identified. Same for great vintages. Magazines, newsletters, web sites and blogs provide us with up-to-the-second reports on great bottles not to be missed. Big scores create feeding frenzies that clear store shelves nationwide. Now that we know who the best-of-the-best are, what do we do with them? We drink them as fast as we can.

More and more we are drinking the best at their worst. Consuming them at the very moment they are overwhelmed by full-blown young fruit power. What all this means is that consumers are learning that a great young wine, it all its majestic simplicity, is what great wine tastes like. This is truly a waste of some potentially great wine.

Robert Parker comments on drinking wines too young  in the current New York Times article by Eric Asimov, “It's like walking into a maternity ward and looking at all the newborn kids, and other than the different colors, they all look alike."

Very, very true. With modern vineyard and cellar techniques, wines are more intensely fruity than they used to be when first released. This fruitiness, while charming, is simple stuff to what many of these wines will offer with a little bottle age. Perhaps everyone should stop blaming Mr. Parker for big, simple fruity wines and blame their own impatience and unwillingness to cellar a wine in the rush to taste whatever is hot and new in the press.

Recently I purchased two wines with a few years of bottle age on them from The Wine Expo in Santa Monica. The depth of complexity these wines offered from just a few years of bottle age was stunning. No amount of breathing or magnets can replace this time in the bottle. If you are going to seriously collect great wines, access to proper storage conditions are essential to enjoying these expensive and rare bottles at their finest.

Looking for Mr. Right Vintage

Those who know business travel, but love wine and food know the drill. You finally get to your hotel to0 late to seek out the best local restaurant, but you are starving. With no choice you head off to the hotel restaurant. There is little hope for an interesting wine on the list and forget anything nice by the glass. You are in corporate wine heaven - otherwise known as your wine hell.

When handed the wine list in such situations, sometimes,  low-and-behold there is one wine that looks promising. This week I found a bottle of 2000 Talbott, Case Pinot Noir, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard in the midst of all the blandness. It was lovely.

It reminded me that all to often, when looking at lists we focus on varietals and price, when a better strategy may be to run your finger down the vintages. My 2000 Talbott was a full 3 to 4 years older than the other pinots on the list and what made this wine so enjoyable was the fact that it actually had few years in the bottle. It was no longer dominated by the big dark black fruit flavors of young wine, instead offering real nuance and complexity.  You can't replace bottle age. Strangely enough the 2000 Talbott was actually cheaper than some of the more "famous" names on the list.

Keep an eye out for those bottles with a few years of bottle age on them when you search the wine list and not only will you be rewarded with a more interesting wine, but you just might save a few bucks as well. 

Fino Sherry is Disgusting

La gitanaFino Sherry is a disgusting wine…at least by the time we get through with it. There the poor dusty bottle sits half-full on the back bar next to the Ports and Cream Sherry going bad as fast as it can.

It is rare to find a restaurant that properly serves and stores Fino and Manzanilla Sherry (the same thing from slightly different areas). This is a real sin as, when fresh and cold, these are among the finest aperitif wines on the planet and one of the most versatile white wines made, matching with an incredible array of dishes and, in fact, is the best match out there for Sushi.

The Sherry industry, importers and distributors must take the blame for this “wholesale” destruction of one of the world’s great white wines. Obviously none of these organisations gives a hoot if Sherry is served properly as long as someone buys it. The restaurants must also take part of the rap as serving warm, oxidized (Fino is not an oxidised style of Sherry like Amontillado and Oloroso) Fino to customers giving them good money is treating their customers poorly. Fino/Manzanilla Sherry should be served just like any other white wine they are serving by the glass. Certainly this is not too complicated of a concept for them to grasp. Can you imagine the reaction a restaurant would get if they served warm pinot grigio by the glass? Also, speaking of glasses, please stop serving fine Sherry in those crappy little liqueur glasses. You don’t have to invest in proper Sherry glasses for Fino, as your Champagne flutes will work perfectly.

Fino and Manzanilla are the most delicate of wines. They are never better than the first day they are bottled and decline in freshness every day after that. These are wines that should be consumed within six months of bottling and should be served chilled to enhance their beautiful fruit, mineral and nut flavors. The bottles should be consumed as soon as possible after opening, unless you drink Sherry very quickly, half-bottles or 500 ml. bottles are highly recommended.

There is one hero out there trying to save Fino from this awful fate. Steven Metzler at Classical Wines from Spain (http://www.classicalwines.com/) is almost a lone voice trying to educate the American trade and consumers on how to enjoy fine Sherry. He has good reason to do so as he is the importer of perhaps the greatest Manzanilla Sherry, Bodegas Hildalgo La Gitana Manzanilla, a beautiful wine that is worth all his efforts to protect. Steven imports this great wine only in 500 ml. bottles to promote freshness and carefully controls his distributors inventories to make sure they don’t offer wine past its prime. To understand the glories of this style of wine at its best, enjoy a chilled bottle of La Gitana with the freshest oysters you can find. There will be no going back.

Most people say they don’t like Sherry because their experience is limited to wine destroyed by neglect. This is like deciding you don’t like Burgundy when the only bottle you have tasted spent the last week in the trunk of a car in Arizona in August.

So I have a new cause for all of you. Save a bottle of Fino Sherry this week. Confront your bartender and get those bottles in the cooler!

For more information on Sherry - click here for my article: Sherry Use it or Lose it

I'll Huff and Puff Your Wine Away

DecanterBreathing may be overrated. Don’t get me wrong, I like to breath and try to do it as often as possible every day.

Breathing can do many things, it keeps us alive and opens up young wines to improve their drinkablity. What breathing does not do is replace time.

I don’t understand the claim by some that many, many hours, stretching even into days, can improve wines to the point that it almost replaces years and years in the cellar. Barolo/Barbaresco is the focal point of most of these wild claims. Time and time again you hear the refrain of, “when I first opened the wine it was closed, but after a day (or more) it finally opened…”  This, I think, is a bunch of crap.

As someone who opens far more bottles than he should, I constantly find myself with a cabinet full of bottles that have been open for various days or weeks and never has a bottle been better the next day than it was after a few hours of breathing. Some wines do better than others, with some bottles remaining delicious for days, while others are shot the next morning. Strange as it may seem,  the girth of a wine has little to do with how it fares with exposure to air.

A case in point, was a recent (gorgeous) bottle of 1999 Giuseppe Mascarello, Barolo Monprivato, which, when first opened was tight, but after two hours in a decanter was sublime and it then gained in complexity over the next two hours of sipping. Never once did it lose its edge. However, the next next night, this extraordinary wine was a shadow of itself: although a lovely shadow it was. The problem was, is this shadow now lacked definition. I want wine with sharp edges, not a diffuse, less interesting profile. It is best to drink a wine before it loses the edges that make it unique.

I agree you can’t argue with taste – actually no, I am debating taste on this point. I think that those who argue for outrageously long breathing periods for wines just don’t like the firm edges, that clear definition that certain wines bring you. Twenty-four hours in a decanter will make those edges hazy, less focused and demanding of the palate. While young wines certainly benefit from exposure to air before consumption, this evolution will never replace those slow years of development in the bottle. From time to time you will visit a producer who will proudly proffer a  wine that has been open for days to show its durability and the precision of their winemaking, but not a one will recommend that their wine is best if you leave it in a decanter while the earth does a complete revolution before consumption: not one.

For young, tight wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, two to three hours in a decanter before serving is adequate. Nebbiolo greatness comes from its firmness, precision and edgy cut. Don’t steal a wine's character and try to turn it into merlot, revel in its tannic beauty.